As the Fourth of July comes around each year, I wonder how many people out there in the Republic are upping the quantity of Louis Armstrong material they’re listening to. No, Armstrong himself wasn’t born on the Fourth of July; his birthday was exactly a month later. But it’s easy to conflate dates when we’re talking about jazz’s principal Uncle Sam figure, a sort of father to all of us who have delighted in the medium.
Uncle Sam was a lot of things, but you had the sense that he was an ambassador too, albeit a stern one, pointing his finger in your direction, solemnly intoning that he wanted you. Armstrong did the same with a smile, only on behalf of jazz, as if he were inviting you to join a party that would not only cater to your immediate leisure-time needs but also change how you thought and interacted with the world going forward. I’ve always heard Armstrong’s music as an auditory directional arrow, his trumpet cadenzas being that which made it strobe, his higher-than-ought-to-be-humanly-possible notes that which betokened new suns for our purview. Music as additional light source.
When I first started listening to Armstrong in college, I was dazzled by the striving energy in his early sides with the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. His music, in three-minute bursts, felt like it had the scope of Homeric quests. Ulysses spoke of drinking life to the lees, and this was the musical analogue of doing just that, and then using the tip of your tongue to get every last drop from the top of your lip. I recall riding in a car one Fourth of July, the Hot Fives cranking, pulling up next to another car that was shaking with the rock rhythms of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and thinking how much rock & roll vim and bounce Armstrong had in him right from what we can think of as his first solo work. This is no miniscule trick, as said material was also a towering achievement of Modernism, as much as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist.
I qualify the Hot Fives and Sevens as solo recordings, because we must be mindful of Armstrong’s own understanding of his career, which meant, in turn, galaxies of respect for King Oliver, the cornet player and composer without whom Armstrong the Modernist might not have existed.
Born in Louisiana in 1881, Oliver matriculated to the hopping jazz joint that was Chicago in the 1920s, where we see Armstrong’s eventual band in germinal form. Oliver employed Louis on second cornet, and they became jazz’s counterpoint to Ruth and Gehrig, or Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in the twin lead-guitar lineup that the British rock band the Yardbirds once dreamily featured.
The parts they played in tandem were sufficiently complex that a physicist could be taxed with figuring out how they orchestrated their elisions. When they traded off passages, they sometimes shared an alightment point upon a single note before each leapt off into different octaves and keys, synching up again at another juncture built from a chord both of them had fiddled with, as if they were two mages sharing a single mind when need be. Johnny Dodds—one of the great undersung virtuosos of jazz—was on clarinet, his brother and rival Baby Dodds on drums, and Louis’ future wife Lil Hardin on piano. She played like Count Basie before Basie did, a fulcrum of rhythm who also sounded like she could back a singer of Schubert lieder.
It touches me that when I go on the Amazon music app, I see a channel for King Oliver. Not because he doesn’t merit it, but rather because I am not sure, sadly, who knows about him anymore, and though your ears do adjust—as any fan of early music will tell you—we are talking about lo-fi sound. Lo-fi sound can become a paragon, I have found, what the ear searches for and craves, as it sounds less the product of a lab and more the product of a field. I think of it as sound art present in its natural world. With Oliver, when teamed with Armstrong, you also get this aspect of a communicative palimpsest, of Dead Sea scrolls bopping and juking.
The history of jazz is a story of unions that have to end, for one reason or other. Consider, for example, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, two men who shaped each other’s aesthetics, who eventually had to push the hell away from each other as the newfound aesthetics they realized in their partnership drove them apart. Often, as with Booker Little and Eric Dolphy, the Reaper claims one half of a partnership long before we would have wished the duo’s official time to be up. These partings can be tragic, they can be splenetic, violent, passive, drug-related, or they can be sweetly touching, as it went with Armstrong and Oliver.
Oliver knew, naturally, that a talent like Armstrong would not be terrifically long for his band. Armstrong, meanwhile, revered Oliver, in perhaps a more fulsome way than any musician I can think of. He honestly seemed to think that Oliver played better than he did, which blows my mind. This is no knock on Oliver—we don’t have jazz without him. Or, if we do, its history would have unfolded differently. If you’d like, consider him as being to the cornet what Charlie Patton was to the guitar, but Armstrong was the Robert Johnson, the untouchable. If ever a person produced notes to prick the bottom of heaven, it was Armstrong with his celestial euphony.
Oliver was rubbish at business. (Not that Armstrong was a master, but Lil was a lot better.) He also had a passion for sugar sandwiches that effectively rotted his mouth, so that as he got older, after Armstrong had decamped, he could barely play at all. Post-Armstrong he had a shot at a Cotton Club residency in NYC, which would have meant nice coin, but he held out for more, and one Mr. Duke Ellington beat him to the punch, copping the gig and grabbing the comet tail that would take him to where he was going. Oliver died in 1938, aged 56. Armstrong, though his best work was behind him, was still just getting started. You never got less than Grade A playing—he was incapable of anything else, it seemed—but after the Hot Fives and Sevens, you wouldn’t get the same level of innovation. There were times when the Decca material that followed tickled the same heavens, but the emphasis became the solos and the singing, not the relentless forward drive to advance music’s cause as new art spun from the warp and weft of singular genius.
Still, Armstrong picked his moments. Among my favorites is the record I’ll call the ultimate Fourth of July jazz recording. This would be 1959’s Satchmo Plays King Oliver, which Louis cut when he was almost the same age as King Oliver had been when he died. A great thing about Armstrong was he couldn’t do reverential. What I mean by that is, if he loved you, if he was paying tribute to what you meant to his life and art, his manner of honoring you was not ceremonial; rather, he blasted his way, inimitably, through your music and what it was that he thought made you unique, which resulted in unique Armstrong art.
Unlike those early Oliver/Armstrong recordings, the sound is impeccable; you might even say that this is one of the best-sounding LPs ever, in part because it was engineered as a showpiece for the new stereophonic technology. Just as a show like Bonanza was shot the way it was shot to help sell color TVs, so too was Armstrong utilized, with the full range of his sound, to get people to pony up for better record players.
The opening “St. James Infirmary” features Armstrong with a mute, which Oliver taught him how to use, and which Oliver pioneered. The man was the Lewis and Clark of mute-playing. The rhythm section sways like birch trees in the wind before a storm; a weather swell is about to kick in. Or so we think—because we get solo Louis instead, his trumpet threading its way around the elements, it feels. He is in no rush to turn this song into a blues, which is what nearly everyone does with it. Rather, he is treating it as something more stately, a requiem for a king housed in a morgue tale from deep in New Orleans. His vocal is slower than his trumpet playing, approaching recitative. Lines are punctuated with knowing laughter for what is the dance of life and death; no sense moping over what you can’t control, he seems to say, but he can control what is played here, and the “take-us-home” outro chorus is Hot Fives/Sevens level, a tip of the horn from one master to another.
“My Old Kentucky Home” urbanizes the melodicism of Stephen Foster with the gritty Chicago neo-soul of Oliver and Armstrong. One has the feeling of being in on a person’s individual musical memories that mean one thing to him, another to us, a gap of the unknowable marking the space between both parties, but the gap not really being pertinent, given the manful autonomy of this sound. That’s not a gender thing—it’s a striving thing, again, Armstrong’s trumpet-based knight errant-ism. You listen to his version of “Big Butter and Egg Man” and you have the strangest epiphany: King Oliver must have been a really nice guy. This is his spirit, as transposed by Armstrong, and it is one that engenders our affections in Armstrong’s catarrhal vocal growls, soft-shoe shuffles of the adenoids that conjure a sensation of laughter shared between friends. I think we have a different way of laughing with certain people than with anyone else. These people are probably our best friends. And that is what I always hear with this number.
The entire record is refulgent. Armstrong (or his producer Sidney Frey) must have done some reading up on the possibilities of stereophonic sound, because at times it is like he’s playing to the left side of our head, then the right, sweeping across spectrums, liberated in a way not unlike when he left Oliver’s employ. “I Ain’t Got Nobody” is the big, sweeping blues, a rolling assortment of night-borne notes, but this is less a lament and more a kindly request to pass that bottle over here.
It’s also one of those music-based lies that you come to love because the manner in which it’s asserted creates an in-joke between musician and listeners. We, the latter, chuckle back, “You ain’t got nobody? That’s not nearly true, is it?” We might add, “You have us.” And, of course, “You and King Oliver had each other.” Without them both, we don’t have jazz as we do, and since we Americans have not invented a lot of art forms in this world, I think you’d also have to say that we wouldn’t quite have the Fourth of July as we have it.